Sunday, 10 October 2021

Kolchak: The Night Stalker (1974-75), updated review

Carl Kolchak, investigative reporter with a nose for stories involving the supernatural, the paranormal and the just plain weird, made his first appearance in two TV movies. These were successful enough to spawn a series, Kolchak: The Night Stalker, which aired on the American ABC network in 1974-75. Sadly the series lasted only a single season. The network might have been well advised to give the series more time to establish an audience. After its cancellation it quickly achieved cult status and became extremely popular in syndication.

Kolchak: The Night Stalker was to the 70s what The X-Files was to the 90s. Kolchak keeps running across stories that just cannot be explained except as supernatural or paranormal phenomena or occasionally just weird fringe science. If only he could just get hold of some hard evidence. But he never does. Or if he does, it gets taken away from him or destroyed. Or for some reason his stories just get killed. But just like Mulder Carl Kolchak never gives up.

Darren McGavin was perfectly cast as Kolchak, a rumpled eccentric who revels in his reputation as a pushy oddball. Kolchak has its tongue-in-cheek side and it has its darker side as well and McGavin handles both effortlessly (anyone who doubts McGavin’s ability to be dark and edgy obviously hasn’t seen him in the late 50s Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer series).

You just really really want Kolchak to one day get the evidence he needs, you know he never will but you know he’ll just keep on trying. He’s a reporter. He doesn’t care about having doors slammed in his face. He doesn’t care about being harassed by the cops. He doesn’t care if people thinks he’s annoying and pushy. He doesn’t care if he makes his editor want to tear his hair out. Those are just the challenges that make being a reporter so much fun. And Kolchak loves being a reporter more than life itself.

This is a series that had a lot of promise but it never quite found its feet. Of course it wasn’t given time to do so. At times it does rely too much on Monster of the Week stories. It’s never quite sure if it wants to stick to the slightly jokey tongue-in-cheek tone or if it wants to get dark and serious. The episodes that rely on special effects suffer from the fact that the effects sometimes look cheap. But the promise was there and there are plenty of solid episodes with original and creepy ideas.

The series may just have been ahead of its time. Even science fiction series had a rough time on US television in the 60s. Weird stuff seemed to be accepted in anthology series (such as The Outer Limits and The Twilight Zone) but perhaps audiences were not ready for a series that must have seemed an odd mix of a conventional newspaper reporter drama with outrageous story lines. It may have been too much of a collision between television drama normality and weirdness. The Outer Limits and The Twilight Zone really didn’t pretend to take place in our reality, but Kolchak did. Two decades later The X-Files was a major hit, following just about the same formula.

Episode Guide

In Mr R.I.N.G. Kolchak stumble across a secret government robotics project called R.I.N.G. (Robomatic Internalized Nerve Ganglia). And it appears that one of their robots is loose, and he’s kinda dangerous. This is a very paranoid X-Files sort of story with the US Government, and especially the military, as the enemy. And the military is a much scarier enemy than any mere monster. An extremely good episode.

They Have Been, They Are, They Will Be… is the other Kolchak episode that is in the X-Files kind of mould. It starts with some seriously weird unexplained happenings. Zoo animals supposedly vanishing. People dying and the post-mortems reveal odd disturbing things. Electronic equipment that goes missing. There’s no actual evidence of anything, so why are the Feds so interested and what are they covering up? If you can’t afford fancy special effects a really good option is to avoid showing anything and rely on suggestion and that’s what his episode does. A lot of people don’t like this episode and I can see why. It is very low-key and lacks any real scares. But it is extremely interesting and I’m quite fond of it.

In Primal Scream an oil company has found some strange cells in a core sample from the Arctic. What’s really strange is that the cells are millions of years old but they show signs of life. Then there are the murders. Murders so brutal it’s as if they were carried out by something not quite human. And Carl Kolchak has some photos of footprints are they’re not quite human either. A fairly typical Kolchak episode, a bit silly but kind of fun.

The better Kolchak episodes are the ones that don’t rely on guys in monster suits and have to rely instead on atmosphere and genuine scares. Episodes like The Trevi Collection in which Kolchak discovers the links between the worlds of high fashion and witchcraft. There are some women who want to have it all, and they are willing to practise the black arts to achieve their desires. Store mannequins are always slightly creepy (the whole uncanny valley thing) and they play a big rôle in this episode. There are also a couple of pretty devious murders. On the whole an excellent episode.

In Chopper a graveyard is cleared for the construction of condominiums. Disturbing the dead is not a good idea. Several brutal slayings follow, with witnesses reporting a headless figure on a motorcycle. Carl gets some photos of tyre tracks but that makes things more confusing - such tyres have not been made for nearly twenty years. They’re the tyres you would have expected to find on the sorts of motorcycles that were popular with motorcycle gangs in the 1950s. Of course there’s no point in trying to tell the police any of this. Kolchak will have to deal with this mystery on his own, if he lives long enough. A pretty decent idea mostly well executed even if the headless biker is a bit unconvincing.

Demon in Lace involves the mysterious deaths of a number of young male college students. There’s no obvious cause of death but they died looking very scared. In each case the body was found along with the body of a young woman, but what worries Kolchak is that the young women had not died at the same time as the young men. And then there’s that Mesopotamian tablet with the weird inscription. The translation of one of the words as succubus worries Kolchak a lot. A truly excellent episode.

Legacy of Terror begins with two murders, both victims having had their hearts torn out. Literally. The only people Carl can think of who do things like that are the Aztecs, but Aztecs in Chicago in the 1970s. It seems unlikely. Then a third similar murder follows and Kolchak starts to see a pattern. A very good episode.

The Knightly Murders begins with a political boss being killed by a crossbow bolt. More murders follow, all done with medieval weaponry. Is the murderer a disgruntled medievalist, an actual medieval knight, some kind of lunatic or something else entirely. Kolchak has his own ideas after having a close encounter with a lance. John Dehner guest stars as the delightfully egotistical, highly literary but incurably lazy Captain Vernon Rausch, a legend in the Homicide Squad. A good fun episode.

What do eternal youth, Greek goddesses and dating agencies have in common? Quite a lot perhaps. Beauty and physical perfection seem to Carl to be the connecting thread. Youth Killer actually starts with 90-year-olds dropping dead all over Chicago. Not very unusual, but the circumstances are puzzling. Carl is particularly intrigued by the ring and the glass eye. This is one of the best Kolchak episodes, combining cleverness with subtle creepiness and wit.

The Sentry takes place in a gigantic underground data storage facility. It seems there have been a few accidents at the facility. Bodies found with teeth marks. Reptilian teeth marks. The cop in charge of the case is a glamorous lady detective but she’s determined to stop Carl from digging around in this case. The setting is very cool but the monsters are pretty silly.  It’s still a fun episode in a good kind of way.

Final Thoughts

OK, some of the guy-in-a-rubber-suit monsters are a bit embarrassing and there are a few dud episodes but the good episodes outnumber the bad ones by a considerable margin. And the good episodes are often very good indeed. Darren McGavin is so likeable he makes even the weaker episodes watchable.

Kolchak: The Night Stalker is immense fun. Highly recommended.

Saturday, 25 September 2021

Columbo Goes to the Guillotine/Murder, Smoke and Shadows

In 1978, after an astonishingly successful run on NBC, Lieutenant Columbo finally hung up his crumpled raincoat for good. Or so it seemed. But it was not the end after all. In 1989 Columbo returned in a series of TV movies, this time on ABC, which continued intermittently until 2003. I approached this later incarnation with trepidation, fearing that it would be a disappointment.

It actually gets off to a pretty good start with an ambitious locked-room mystery, Columbo Goes to the Guillotine. It combines stage magic (always a winner in my book), psychic phenomena and some delightful mockery of the CIA.

We have to wait a long time for Columbo to make his entrance but the setup for the murder is extremely clever, genuinely puzzling and thoroughly entertaining. Elliott Blake (Anthony Andrews) is a psychic and he’s being studied at the Anneman Institute for Psychic Research. This time they’re convinced they have a real psychic on their hands and they’re very excited. The Pentagon and the CIA are excited as well - this will give them a vital weapon against the commies (the episode went to air in early 1989 when the Soviet Union still existed).

However the CIA wants to be sure. And what better way to be sure than getting renowned magician and sceptic Max Dyson (Anthony Zerbe) to try to debunk Blake. Dyson has exposed countless fraudulent psychics and phoney mediums and if Blake is using trickery then he’s the man to uncover that trickery. Of course you can see how tis might lead to murder, and it does. And it’s a wonderfully ingenious murder.

The way in which Columbo unravels the mystery is entirely satisfying. The vital clues are provided by a fifteen-year-old aspiring magician named Tommy. Introducing a precocious kid is always a risk but in this case it works. Tommy’s most important contribution comes when he tells Columbo that it’s not that difficult to figure out how a trick is done as long as you always keep in mind that it is a trick.

The murder is almost a perfect murder but there are a couple of tiny details that to Columbo’s mind just don’t quite fit. The plot is excellent, combining intricacy with the expected battle of wits between Columbo and the suspect.

Anthony Andrews is pretty good as the suspect constantly dogged by the rumpled homicide lieutenant. Pretty good, but I can’t help thinking this episode might have worked better with the two major supporting rôles reversed. Anthony Zerbe is a more colourful actor than Andrews and might have been a more formidable opponent for Columbo. Zerbe is an absolute delight as Max.

Oddly enough the one minor weakness in this episode is Peter Falk whose performance seems a bit mannered and a bit overdone. It had been eleven years since he’d played the part and he doesn’t seem entirely convincing. In the 1970s episodes Columbo was an outrageous but believable character, a very smart cop who was a bit eccentric but who carefully played up his eccentricities to put suspects off-guard. In this 1989 incarnation he just seems too obviously an actor. It’s almost as if he’s forgotten how he used to play the rôle and he’s trying too hard.

The magic stuff is terrific and the explanations of how the tricks were worked are fascinating.

All in all Columbo Goes to the Guillotine is surprisingly successful. Maybe not quite equal to the very best of the earlier episodes but still very good and very enjoyable.

Murder, Smoke and Shadows went to air in late February 1989. Once again there’s an attempt to make the setting as colourful, and as artificial, as possible. This time it’s the world of movies. Whizz-kid film director Alex Brady has a problem. A few years earlier when he and his friends Lenny Fisher and Buddy Coates were aspiring film-makers still making ultra low budget movies Lenny’s sister Jenny was killed when a stunt went wrong.  Alex panicked and left her to die. Lenny didn’t know about this but he does now and he’s arrived in Hollywood to wreck Alex’s career. Alex isn’t going to let that happen.

As in Columbo Goes to the Guillotine the murder is devious and ingenious. Alex’s attempts to cover his tracks are less clever. He knows a lot about making movies but as a murderer he’s at best a gifted amateur.

It just hasn’t occurred to Alex that the police are professionals at this sort of thing and they have vast resources. The ability of the police in general and Columbo in particular to piece together the story of a murder is as impressive as Alex’s ability to tell a story on film.

It’s another clever plot even if the theatricality is overdone at times. The ending is very theatrical indeed but it’s in keeping with the feel of the story.

Again Peter Falk’s performance seems not quite right. He just isn’t relaxing into the part they way he used to. Columbo’s malicious glee when he nails his suspect also seems a bit out of character.

A Columbo story depends a lot on the quality of the villain. Fisher Stevens as Alex is quite good but there is one big problem. At twenty-five Stevens was ridiculously young to be playing the part of a film director so well established that books have been written about his films. He looks even younger than twenty-five and comes across as being more like a precocious high school kid than a seasoned Hollywood veteran. Setting so much of the episode in Alex’s private little “boys’ club” hideaway with its train sets and pinball machines and soda fountain just makes him seem even younger. If only Stevens had been ten years older his performance might have worked splendidly - he certainly plays Alex as the kind of self-centred manipulative narcissist you’d expect to find in Hollywood.

Alex is also a Columbo villain who loses his cool quickly and seems cocky in a teenaged way rather than the type of smooth confident murderer who might present a real challenge to Lieutenant Columbo.

Steven Hill plays a small rôle as a ruthless producer whom Alex has made the mistake of crossing and Hill's assured performance, while very entertaining, also serves to make Alex seem like a naughty schoolboy.

So this episode has some problems. It does have its strengths however. The film studio setting is used very effectively and the story is basically excellent. So it’s a mixed bag but still enjoyable.

Was it a good idea to resurrect Columbo? Probably not. Both these episodes are brave attempts and they’re reasonably successful but the magic is not quite there.

Sunday, 12 September 2021

Callan: This Man Alone

Callan: This Man Alone is a 2016 feature-length documentary on the classic Callan TV series (arguably the greatest TV spy series ever made). It features interviews with many of the key people involved in the making of the series - writers, directors, actors, producers. There are also brief snippets from audio interviews with Callan creator James Mitchell and stars Edward Woodward and Anthony Valentine. The documentary was clearly a labour of love and it provides plenty of fascinating anecdotes and some good insights into what it was that made Callan great television.

James Mitchell had already written several novels (including spy thrillers under the name James Munro) and had written scripts for several of the best TV series of the 60s (The Avengers, The Troubleshooters) when he wrote the TV play A Magnum for Schneider for the very prestigious Armchair Theatre anthology series produced by Britain’s ABC Television. Even before it went to air ABC felt it had the potential to become a regular series. A Magnum for Schneider introduced reluctant British government assassin David Callan to the world.

One thing that comes through pretty clearly is that if you want to make great television you have to set your sights high. Mitchell certainly set his sights high with Callan right from the start. Once it becomes evident that you’re aiming to make an intelligent provocative television series you’ll have the best writers, directors and actors falling over themselves to work on the show and that makes things a whole lot easier.

An interesting point which comes through in this documentary is the way this series turned setbacks to its advantages. Significant cast changes had to be made at various times. Wth new characters coming into the series (notably Cross but also several new Hunters) the dynamics between Callan and his superior change, and the dynamics between Callan and Cross are quite different from the dynamics between Callan and Toby Meres. This is one of the things that kept the series consistently interesting for the whole of its four-season run.

One of the reasons for Callan’s success was that it was made at the right time, between 1967 and 1972. This was the era in which British TV was shot mostly in the studio and on videotape. This was perfect for Callan - it gave the series a seedy claustrophobic feel. Had it entered production in 1974 (in the wake of the sensation created by The Sweeney) it would have been shot on film and on location and it would have featured a lot more action. Even if nothing else had changed it would have been a different series and it would not have worked half as well. Callan needed a murky enclosed oppressive atmosphere. Everything in Callan looks a bit tawdry. Even Hunter’s office is tawdry. Callan’s flat is tidy (he’s an ex-soldier) but it’s depressingly stifling.

Callan produced numerous spin-offs - a series of original novels and short stories by James Mitchell, a movie in 1974 and a TV movie (Wet Job) in 1981. The universal opinion among those interviewed for the documentary (an opinion which I share) is that the 1974 movie doesn’t quite work. By necessity it had have a bit more action, it had to have a slightly more expansive look and inevitably it lost some of the claustrophobic feel. As a result it’s not quite Callan. It’s by no means a bad movie but it doesn’t have the flavour of the TV series.

To be honest the only original Callan novel I’ve read, Russian Roulette, isn’t quite authentic Callan either. Mitchell was obviously trying to do something slightly different with the novels, which is fair enough, but I really think that the whole Callan concept worked better on TV. Which is logical. James Mitchell created the idea specifically for television, to take advantage of the things that television does particularly well.

If you’re a Callan aficionado then you’ll want to see Callan: This Man Alone. Network have released it in a three-disc pack with new transfers of several of the black-and-white episodes.

You might also want to check out my reviews of Callan: The Monochrome Years, the original version of A Magnum for Schneider, the Richmond File season four story arc and the Callan movie.

Wednesday, 1 September 2021

Dragnet (1954, movie spin-off from the TV series)

The first television series to spawn a spin-off movie (an actual feature film, not just a few episodes of the series cobbled together) was Dragnet. The Dragnet movie, directed by Jack Webb, was released in 1954 and it was a very substantial hit.

The movie differs from the TV series in being an inverted mystery and of course being in colour with a fair bit of location shooting but overall it captures the tone of the series remarkably well. And of course it features the stars of the TV series. If you're a fan of the series you'll want to see the movie.

I reviewed the television series right here a couple of years ago. My review of the movie can be found here at my Classic Movie Ramblings blog.

Monday, 16 August 2021

Miami Vice, season one (1985)

Miami Vice erupted onto television screens in 1985 and nothing would ever be quite the same again.

This is Miami in the 80s. The decade of greed. The place is swimming in money, almost all of it drug money. It has corrupted everything. Nobody can be trusted. Not the cops, not judges, nobody. If you’re a cop you especially can’t trust cops. The town is filled with local cops, state cops, DEA agents, FBI agents and you don’t know who they are. That drug dealer you just busted might be a DEA agent. None of these agents communicate very well.

There were traces of cynicism in earlier American cop shows but Miami Vice does mark a major cultural change. In this series the cynicism is front and centre. The two protagonists, Crockett and Tubbs, are part of the War On Drugs and it’s a war that is obviously being lost. Crockett and Tubbs know that the war is being lost. They’re still willing to keep fighting but they don’t expect to win. They’re honest but they’re surrounded by people who are dishonest and those dishonest people have all the power and all the money.

Other American cop shows had tried to take a realistic (or at least semi-realistic) view of crime and the difficulties in combating it but with Miami Vice for the first time we have a major network TV series suggesting that maybe it’s all futile.

Miami Vice was very much a return to the world of film noir. People were and sometimes still are misled by the sunshine and the glamour and the glitz and don’t notice how very film noir it is. Visually it is the polar opposite of film noir, but content-wise it’s pure noir. In fact the visuals increase the noirness of the series by contrasting the superficial glamour with the corruption and degradation lurking just beneath the surface.

The series actually has a lot in common with the neo-noir films of the 60s and 70s, especially Polanski’s Chinatown. There’s the same mix of money, glamour, sunshine, decadence and corruption.

Miami Vice is very cinematic. This was obvious enough at the time but it’s even more obvious now when you get the chance to see it on a big-screen TV in high definition. The aim had been to bring feature film production values to television and that aim is achieved. It was a very very expensive series to make and it was money well spent.

Miami itself is one of the stars of the show. It doesn’t just give Miami Vice a different look to the typical cop show shot in LA, it gives it a whole different vibe, making the most of the art deco architecture and the light.

Compared to earlier American cop shows Miami Vice upped the ante when it came to violence, both the quantity of violence and the intensity. It also broke new ground for a network TV cop show in terms of emotional intensity and complexity.

What makes Miami Vice so distinctive is that it combines gritty realism with extreme glamour and it combines extraordinary cynicism and pessimism with extreme style and high fashion. That was a totally new combination for viewers.

It’s also a weird blend of ultra-realism and fantasy. Crockett and Tubbs are ordinary street cops and they’re scrupulously honest (that’s what gets them into so much trouble) and yet they can obviously afford to spend astronomical amounts of money on clothes and Crockett drives a Ferrari for crying out loud.

Don Johnson and Philip Michael Thomas make a naturally great team. They get good support from Michael Talbott and John Diehl as Detectives Switek and Zito (who add some lighter touches) and from Saundra Santiago (as Gina) and Olivia Brown (as Trudi), also Miami Vice cops. Edward James Olmos as the dour but oddly sympathetic Lieutenant Castillo rounds off the regular cast.

The cinematic visual style, the radical use of colours (you can’t make a show dark and edgy with a colour palette of pastels but Miami Vice does it anyway and makes it work), the cutting-edge fashions and the music elevated the series to immediate iconic status.

Episode Guide

The pilot episode, Brother’s Keeper, starts with two prologues in which two cops get murdered in drug busts gone wrong, one in New York and one in Miami.

James “Sonny” Crockett (Don Johnson) has been working on a case for months targeting a big-time cocaine dealer named Calderone. Everything seems to go wrong on this case, including his partner getting killed. Now Crockett has a new problem. The black dude he just tried to bust is actually a New York cop named Rafael Tubbs (Philip Michael Thomas). Or at least he says he’s a cop and he seems to be a cop. Tubbs suggest that he and Crockett should team up, which Crockett thinks is a terrible idea. Crockett is already offended because Tubbs has suggested that everything is going wrong because someone in Miami Vice is on the take. The reason Crockett is so angry is that he also thinks one of his fellow Miami Vice cops is crooked but he doesn’t want some cop from out of town pointing this out.

Crockett has relationship problems as well. Like most TV cops he has a failed marriage behind him and he doesn’t know if he’s still in love with his wife or with someone else he’s met. At least his relationship with Elvis is pretty good. Elvis is his pet alligator. With alligators (unlike cops) you always know where you stand.

Elvis provides the moments of occasional comic relief which are needed in a series which could otherwise be a bit too relentlessly bleak.

Heart of Darkness takes Crockett and Tubbs into the porn industry but there’s murder involved as well. Even worse, the Feds are mixed up in it. There’s an FBI agent undercover but he’s stopped reporting in. Maybe he’s gone over to the other side. Maybe he hasn’t. Should Crockett and Tubbs trust him or not? It’s a tough judgment call. A fine episode.

Cool Runnin' starts with a very minor drug deal that takes an unexpected turn when three Jamaicans let loose with machine pistols. Then a couple of cops fall victim to the same gang. The only lead that Crockett and Tubbs have is a fast-talking small-time crook-turned-informant named Noogie who might be able to lead them to the killers. There’s lots of action and there’s lots of comedy courtesy of Noogie but this is Miami Vice so there’s a serious subtext as well. Crockett cuts some corners and pus his informant’s life in unnecessary danger but he feels bad about it and is prepared to take risks to try to get Noogie out of the jam he’s put him in in.

Crockett is being established as a complex character - he can be ruthless and he can be caring as well, sometimes at the same time. Crockett is good at his job but it exacts a toll on him. And Tubbs is starting to find out about the demands of the job as well and how he and Crockett are in a world where being the good guys is complicated. An excellent episode.

Calderone, the big-time coke dealer with whom Crockett and Tubbs clashed in the pilot episode, is back in the two-part story Calderone’s Return. He’s back and he’s hired an international hitman to thin out the competition. And Crockett is on his hit list. There’s lots of suspense and lots of emotional drama as the pressure gets to Crockett and he starts jumping at shadows. He’s also going through a divorce at the time so he’s under extreme emotional stress. Lots of action and gunplay with a memorable shoot-out at the end.

In the second part the action moves to the Bahamas and the boys soon find themselves very very alone. And this time it’s Tubbs who is under the emotional pressure as he discovers just how unpleasant it is to have to use someone you’ve become involved with. Miami Vice switches back and forth between glamour, extreme violence and emotional drama and does so very effectively. This is another story with a strong film noir vibe and it’s a superb episode.

In One Eyed Jack Crockett tries to help out an old girlfriend with gambling problems and finds himself up against a very nasty operator named de Marco but even worse he’s in the sights of Internal Affairs. Crockett and Tubbs come up with a good plan to set up a gambling kingpin but good plans don’t always run smoothly. They also get to meet their new lieutenant and he’s quite something. Another good but dark episode.

In No Exit Miami Vice are trying to nail an illegal arms dealer (played by Bruce Willis). He’s a particularly repellant individual but the Miami Vice cops discover that there are even sleazier people they have to deal with and those even sleazier people work for the Federal Government. A very good but very cynical episode.

The Great McCarthy combines offshore powerboat racing and drug smuggling, and murder. Crockett gets to prove that there’s nothing he can’t do - we discover that he can beat anybody at snooker and he can beat anybody at powerboat racing. Tubbs gets emotionally involved with the drug smuggler’s girlfriend and Crockett is convinced his friend is going to get hurt. Not a bad episode with plenty of cool powerboat racing scenes.

In Glades a vital witness in a drugs case, Joey Bramlette, disappears. Crockett and Tubbs have to find him. He’s gone back to his home deep in the Everglades. They do find him and they discover that the drug lord he was going to testify against has kidnapped his daughter. Crockett and Tubbs find themselves in very unfamiliar territory and up against about twenty Colombians armed with automatic weapons, and all they have is half a dozen gun-toting hicks. And they’re going to have to launch a full-scale assault on the house in which the little girl is being held. The stage is set for an epic gun battle, which is both tense and outrageously over-the-top. There’s quite a bit of fun in this very good and very offbeat episode.

Give a Little, Take a Little sees Crockett and Tubbs up against a crime kingpin who runs both the narcotics and prostitution rackets. Sonny thinks he’s got a lucky break when an informant gives him some key information but Sonny ends in jail when he refuses to name the informant. Gina (the fellow Miami Vice cop with whom Crockett is romantically involved) goes undercover as a hooker and finds out just how you sometimes have to go to maintain your cover. An episode wth plenty of plot but the main focus is on the price that has to be paid for catching big-time criminals. An excellent episode.

In Little Prince the messed-up son of a fabulously rich tycoon is busted for possession of heroin. Crockett is convinced the kid, Mark Jorgensen Jr, could lead them to some major dealers. That expectation is more than fulfilled, but not in the Way Crockett and Tubbs anticipated. This is a character-driven episode and if you can get past the unsympathetic nature of those characters there is some depth to the story. And again Crockett and Tubbs find themselves having to do things they’re not entirely comfortable with. Not much action at all but still an interesting episode.

Milk Run starts with a couple of dumb kids who think they’re going to get rich bringing in drugs from Colombia. Crockett and Tubbs think they’ve managed to scare some sense into the kids but it’s never that simple. Crockett and Tubbs are also investigating an explosion in a coke lab which they think can lead them to a couple of drug king-pins. Crockett is still worried about those two dumb kids, and he has reason to worry. An excellent episode with Crockett showing his compassionate side.

Golden Triangle is a two-parter. It starts with a case involving corrupt cops shaking down prostitutes. That leads on to a bigger case, involving a robbery. The puzzle about the robbery is figuring out what the robbers were trying to steal. When Crockett and Tubbs do figure that out it leads them on to a third and much bigger case. A case which is very personal indeed to their boss, Lieutenant Castillo. A case with roots going back five years, to the jungles of South-East Asia. It’s a case that doesn’t just involve organised crime, it involves the biggest organised crime operation of them all, the CIA. An excellent episode that displays the series’ characteristic disdain for federal agencies such as the FBI and the CIA. I don’t normally like episodes of cop shows in which a cop has a personal stake in a case but in this instance it’s handled without resorting to clichés.

In Smuggler's Blues someone is killing drug smugglers after kidnapping members of their families and it’s obvious that the someone doing the killing works in law enforcement. He could be in any branch of law enforcement. Crockett and Tubbs pose as drug smugglers which takes them to Colombia where they get lots of aggravation but their troubles get even worse when they get bak to Miami. There’s a mail-biting ending. A very good action-packed episode.

In Rites of Passage Diane Gordon has just arrived in Miami where she gets introduced to the world of cocaine and high-class prostitution by a sleaze named Traynor. Diane’s sister Valerie (Pam Grier), a new York homicide cop, has also arrived in Miami looking for her kid sister. Things get complicated for Tubbs since Valerie is an old flame and the romance is soon rekindled. Saving Diane is not going to be so simple. She doesn’t want to be saved. The episode then takes several dark turns. Pam Grier’s guest starring spot is a definite highlight, there’s some good comic relief from Switek and Zito posing as pest exterminators but mostly this is a very dark, and very effective, episode. It’s also one of those Miami Vice episodes that suggests it’s all pretty futile. If they bust Traynor another Traynor will immediately take over. As long as there’s the lure of glamour, drugs and money girls like Diane are going to be seduced by those things.

The Maze
is a hostage drama that starts with a cop getting killed. Crockett and Tubbs think that another cop’s recklessness was to blame. The hostages are held in an derelict apartment building that is like a maze and that’s only the beginning of the difficulties facing the police. And Tubbs is in the building with the hostages. This episode gives us a close look at the seamy side of Miami. An excellent episode.

Made for Each Other is an episode you’ll either love or hate. Crockett and Tubbs hardly appear at all. It’s almost totally focused on Switek and Zito and on informers Noogie and Izzy. And it’s totally focused on comedy. Considering how grim and downbeat Miami Vice could be it wasn’t an entirely bad idea to throw in a comic relief episode very occasionally. What matters is that it is genuinely very funny. Switek’s relationship with his new girlfriend Darlene and the theft of the cement mixer are highlights. I liked this one.

In The Home Invaders Robbery asks Vice for help in investigating a series of violent home invasions. The head of the Robbery detail, Lieutenant Malone, was Sonny’s old boss and mentor. Castillo is convinced that Malone is making a mess of the case. Tubbs doesn’t appear in this episode and Castillo gets to do some action hero stuff. A very good episode with Sonny not being sure where his loyalties lie. Don Johnson and Edward James Olmos really shine in this one, with Crockett being all emotion and Castillo being all ice-cold control.

Nobody Lives Forever involves both love and death. It’s Crockett who’s in love, but maybe that’s not a good idea. He has to try to find a way to make it work without risking both personal and professional disaster. And there are three punks with a death wish but they’re likely to take a lot of other people with them. There’s a lot of romance in this episode but there’s plenty of mayhem as well. A pretty good episode as Crockett has to figure out what he really wants in life.

Evan is a misfire. It’s an example of what happens when political messaging is more important than a coherent plot. On a case Crockett encounters a former colleague who is in deep cover. There’s lots of angsting about their shared guilt concerning the death of another cop. It’s all too contrived and just doesn’t ring true.

Lombard is the season finale. Gangster Albert Lombard has been subpoenaed to appear before a grand jury. He’s been granted immunity from prosecution, which means he can’t incriminate himself, which means he can’t take the Fifth. He’s going to have to talk. If he talks he’s a dead man. If he doesn’t talk he faces five years in prison for contempt. He can’t win. And the Mob has decided not to take the chance that he will talk. They’ve put out a contract on him. Miami Vice have to keep him alive. This episode is Miami Vice at its best - slightly unpredictable, lots of violent action and fascinating character interactions between Lombard (who becomes a more and more complex character) and Crockett and Tubbs. It ends the season in fine style.

Final Thoughts

Miami Vice redefined the American cop show the way The Sweeney had redefined the British cop show a decade earlier. It made every other cop show on television suddenly look stodgy and quaint. A great series. Very highly recommended.

Tuesday, 3 August 2021

The Hound of the Baskervilles (The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson)

The Hound of the Baskervilles was made for Soviet television in 1981, as part of their excellent The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson series. It was directed by Igor Maslennikov, who co-wrote the script with Yuri Veksler.

It is of course one of the many many adaptations of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous 1902 novel. It’s a two-part adaptation with a total running time of 154 minutes.

The setting is the moors in Devonshire. Sir Charles Baskerville seems to have become the latest victim of the terrifying beast that roams the moors, the hound of the Baskervilles. It’s a family curse dating back to the mid-18th century.

The adventure begins for Holmes and Watson when a worried young physician, Dr Mortimer (Evgeniy Steblov), turns up at 221B Baker Street with an old manuscript. Dr Mortimer holds grave fears for the safety of the heir to the Baskerville estate, Sir Henry Baskerville, newly arrived from Canada. Holmes of course does not believe in supernatural hounds but he has caught the scent of a fascinating mystery.

Dr Watson is despatched to the Baskerville estate while Holmes attends to certain investigations of his own in London. Watson discovers that Sir Henry Baskerville is a wild-eyed eccentric but Baskerville has a certain charm as well. Watson is used to dealing with eccentrics (Sherlock Holmes is nothing if not eccentric) and he has a vast store of tolerance for odd behaviour.

The death of Sir Charles Baskerville certainly appeared to be another manifestation of the ancient family curse.

Of course like Holmes the viewer will be inclined to look for a more rational explanation. There are lots of romantic complications that could provide clues. There’s the passionate love between Sir Henry Baskerville and Miss Beryl Stapleton, the sister of Baskerville’s neighbour Mr Stapleton. There’s a Mrs Laura Lyons, the slightly disreputable daughter of an eccentric and remarkably litigious old man named Frankland. Mrs Lyons may have been involved in an intrigue with Sir Charles Baskerville.

Old Frankland is crazy enough to be involved in anything.

There’s also an escaped murderer roaming the moors. Sir Henry’s butler Barrymore is definitely hiding something. Dr Mortimer might be hiding something as well. He’s a pleasant young man but he seems rather anxious.

As for the hound, we don’t see it until the very end but we hear it. The final reveal of the beast is extremely effective and genuinely horrifying.

As in the previous episodes I’m struck by the amount of care that went into this production and in particular by the determination to avoid a studio-bound look. The London street scenes were shot in the old quarter of Riga. I have no idea where the scenes of the moors were shot but those scenes perfectly capture the required feeling of loneliness and desolation. And the sense of brooding menace. In some ways the locations used actually work better than authentic English locations would have worked - they’re so wonderfully cold and bleak. It’s almost like we’re on an alien world.

The sets and the costumes are sumptuous. No opportunities are missed to make the look of the production interesting. It’s one of the most visually impressive Hounds of the Baskervilles that I’ve seen. This is a superbly crafted production with some stunning cinematography - not just by 1980s TV standards but by feature film standards.

This adaptation has more of the feel of a feature film than of a TV series. The production values are high.

I don’t think there’s much I can add to what I’ve already said in a previous review about the wonderful performances of Vasily Livanov as Holmes Vitaly Solomin as Dr Watson. Solomin is the best Watson ever. Due to the nature of the plot Vitaly Solomin has to carry a large part of the first part single-handed and he has no difficulties at all in doing this. This is a Watson we enjoy watching, rather than being impatient for Holmes to make his re-appearance.

Nikita Mikhalkov’s performance as Sir Henry Baskerville is amusing. Sir Henry has lived for most of his life in the United States so I assume Mikhalkov was trying to make him seem like a brash American. Actually he comes across as a crazy Russian! But he certainly makes the character seem wildly eccentric and yet rather good-natured.

As is usual for this series the supporting performances are very strong with Aleksandr Adabashyan as Baskerville’s butler Barrymore (a man who seems to know a great deal more than he is willing to reveal) and Irina Jupchenko as Beryl Stapleton being especially good. Beryl may also know more than she is prepared to disclose.

What’s most impressive here is the gloomy, spooky, doom-laden very gothic atmosphere. The moors are pretty frightening even without a supernatural beast lurking in them.

One interesting feature of this adaptation is that whenever a letter or a document of any kind plays a part in the story it is always in English - presumably an attempt to give the production a more English flavour.

This is an adaptation that is not only more faithful to the plot of Conan Doyle’s story it is also more faithful than most to the feel. Readers in 1902 who were familiar with the Sherlock Holmes stories would have been aware that this was not going to be a novel of the supernatural. It is a detective story. Sherlock Holmes is a man who takes the mysterious and gives it a rational explanation. Consequently this production downplays the supernatural elements. Neither Holmes nor Watson believes for one second that this is really a case of a spectral beast from the underworld. This is murder, with very real human motives.

If you’re going to watch this production (and you should) it’s better to start with the earlier episodes (which I’ve reviewed here) which will give you a chance to really get a feel for the performances of Livanov and Solomin.

There are those who regard this as the best ever adaptation of Conan Doyle’s novel. They may well be right. It’s certainly one of the very best and it might even qualify as my personal favourite. It’s not a slam-bang fast-paced version. The story unfolds in a leisurely manner allowing plenty of time to immerse the viewer in the atmosphere. Very highly recommended.

The Russian DVD offers a very good transfer with optional English subtitles.

Thursday, 22 July 2021

Police Woman season two (1975-76)

Police Woman was not the first American TV series about a female undercover cop. That honour goes to Decoy, made way back in 1957. It was also not the first American TV series to feature an action heroine. Honey West beat it to the punch by a decade. Police Woman, which ran on NBC from 1974 to 1978 does however qualify as one of the iconic 70s American cop shows. And it did pave the way for other female-dominated action series such as Charlie’s Angels.

The first season was released on DVD by Sony in 2006 and it’s now difficult (and expensive) to acquire. The Shout! Factory releases of the second and subsequent seasons are much easier to find without breaking the bank which is why I’m reviewing the second season rather than the first.

It was Rio Bravo back in 1959 which launched Angie Dickinson’s career in a major way but it was Police Woman that made her a household name. As Sergeant Pepper Anderson (no-one agrees on what the character’s real first name is) she’s sexy and brash and tough and fairly hardboiled. She does have her vulnerable side and in one season two episode she’s on the point of quitting because she’s tired of being set up as a target all the time.

Earl Holliman plays her boss (and friend) Sergeant Bill Crowley with whom she has a mostly good professional relationship.

Dickinson and Holliman work very well together. There’s some flirtatiousness, some conflict and considerable respect between the two characters. It’s a slightly more complex relationship than you normally get in a cop show.

The other regular members of Crowley’s squad are Investigator Pete Royster (Charles Dierkop) and Investigator Joe Styles (Ed Bernard).

The first season gained a reputation for being quite violent, an aspect that was apparently toned down for the second season which went to air beginning in late 1975.

The show’s major selling point is of course Angie Dickinson. She was forty-three at the time the show premiered but she was still pretty glamorous. Her considerable sex appeal was heavily featured. And she certainly has charisma.

Police Woman does make some attempt to deal with the particular problems Pepper faces being both a cop and a woman. Not so much the professional challenges (Pepper is good at her job and no-one ever questions her competence) but the more interesting emotional challenges. Personally I think Decoy handled this aspect in a more interesting and complex way but Police Woman does at least try to address these issues.

Pepper Anderson is not a super-woman. She’s a well-trained professional who works as part of a team and her job is not to take on heavily-armed bad guys single-handed. A police woman who tried that would soon end up dead. A male police officer who tried that would soon end up dead as well. Successful cops don’t take stupid risks.

No 1970s American cop show is all that realistic - in the 70s the people who made TV shows understood that too much realism made for boring television. But Police Woman is, by the standards of the genre, at least not too wildly unrealistic.

Of course the emphasis here is on action (whereas for real-life cops the emphasis is on routine policework) and Police Woman provides plenty of satisfying action. This is not a Dragnet-style series about ordinary cops just doing ordinary routine police work. 70s audiences expected plenty of thrills.

Police Woman was considered to be quite violent by the standards of 70s American television. Of course if you compare it to its exact contemporary in Britain, The Sweeney, then Police Woman looks ridiculously tame.

If you want a realistic emotionally powerful TV series about a police woman, watch Decoy. If you want a fun action-packed series about a police woman then Police Woman delivers the goods.

Episode Guide

Pawns of Power is a pretty cynical season opener. Pepper is undercover at a moving casino (it’s in the back of a semi-trailer) but when the cops make the bust they discover they’ve blundered into an investigation by a high-powered state organised crime squad run by the oily Moulton (Roddy McDowall). Pepper has to stay undercover to take the place of one of Mouton’s people who’s been murdered, but Moulton doesn’t care how many people he puts at risk as long as he gets the big bust he wants. He’s quite happy to sacrifice Pepper and she knows it and she doesn’t like it one little bit. It’s a routine story but the depth of the cynicism makes it interesting.

In The Score druggies are dying from speed that is just too pure and too potent. The speed is coming from a new lab but the nice little dealing setup starts to go wrong when a courier absconds with the merchandise because she’s decided that dealing drugs is wrong. This episode is a bit of a mess, trying too hard to capture the drug culture atmosphere.

Paradise Mall is an improvement. A serial killer is targeting blonde women and he leaves the bodies wearing bridal veils. There are several possible suspects, some decent misdirection and a twist ending. It’s a bit contrived but it works extremely well.

Pattern for Evil
involves an attempted Mob takeover of the garment trade. Pepper goes undercover, as a model naturally, which provides opportunities to have her running around in bathing suits. A solid episode.

In The Chasers Pepper gets knocked down by a dry cleaning truck. When she wakes up in the hospital she discovers, much to her surprise, that she’s retained a lawyer. She’s stumbled upon an ambulance-chasing racket. They don’t just take advantage of traffic accidents. They manufacture them. Pepper gets herself involved in order to get the evidence the cops need. The great Ida Lupino guest stars as an oily crooked social worker. It’s standard Police Woman stuff - Pepper right in the middle of things and getting herself into lots of danger, a decent enough script, some smooth villains and some action as the case turns into a case of triple murder. Another good solid episode.

Cold Wind opens with two guys who get shot to death as they arrive for work at a soft drink factory. There’s one promising suspect who has told the police a whole lot of lies and there’s another promising suspect whose car matched the description of one that was spotted leaving the murder scene. Pepper’s job is to get close to suspect number two. He’s a nice young man but a bit strange. There are some literary and artistic clues - a painting and a book, both called The Cold Wind which Pepper is pretty sure represents death. This above-average episode has a very nasty sting in the tail.

A parole officer is shot to death and in Above and Beyond Pepper goes undercover as a parolee. Parole officers tend to make enemies but this particular one was pretty popular. Pepper is offered a one-way trip to Mexico and the guy offering it could be the killer. This one gives Angie Dickinson the opportunity to be a bit hardboiled but she doesn’t overdo it. There are some obvious leads but after all any one of the guy’s parolees could have had some motive. There’s some decent misdirection, a very neat piece of deduction from a physical clue and at least one very good plot twist. A good episode.

In Farewell, Mary Jane the narcotics squad needs help. One of their informers, a former airline pilot named Klein (played by Lance LeGault of A-Team fame) has gone rogue and turned out to be a real bad guy after all and he’s crazy and dangerous as well. Crowley persuades a down-on-his-luck racing car driver to help out and the driver and Pepper pose as big-time dealers. There’s plenty of suspense and it’s a pretty good episode.

Pepper gets caught up in a bank robbery and taken hostage by a hillbilly gang who think they’re reliving some old movie in Blaze of Glory. Vern, the leader of the gang, wants to go out in a blaze of glory like Dillinger. Pepper manages to convince Vern and his brother Charlie Joe that she’s a hooker and that she’s on their side but Vern’s girlfriend Laurene hates Pepper at first sight. It’s a good action-filled chase episode.

In Glitter with a Bullet Pepper goes undercover as a reporter to investigate corruption in the record business. Tommy Donlevy is a big pop star but all is not well with Tommy. His friend and bass player Bobby died and the police suspect it was murder. Tommy’s band is very very 1970s - glitter and spangles. Tommy is being manipulated but he’s too crazy and strung-out to figure out what’s going on. There are some very nasty people around Tommy. If you believe this episode the record business in the 70s was an out-and-out racket, a world of sleazy deals and murder. It’s a bit silly but kind of money although it relies rather too much on clichés (including that old favourite of an attempt to kill the heroine by cutting her car’s brake line).

In The Purge Crowley shoots and kills a fifteen-year-old boy during a bungled raid on a warehouse. Crowley gets suspended and could face manslaughter charges. The sting that Pepper and a retired conman cook up to catch the bad guys is reasonably clever but the problem with this episode is that we’re supposed to be on the side of Crowley and the cops but they really don’t come out of the whole affair looking very good. The moral ambiguities needed to be explored a bit less simplistically but maybe prime-time TV in 1975 wasn’t ready for that.

Don't Feed the Pigeons is about a particularly cruel gang of bunco artists preying on old ladies. Pepper infiltrates the gang. The scam is complicated and requires a detailed explanation which is slotted in reasonably effectively. Personally I always enjoy stories about complex con games so I liked this episode.

In The Hit we have gangsters and boxing, the world’s fattest bookmaker and the world’s most incompetent hitman. This hitman has made a mess of his last two hits but if he keeps trying maybe he’ll actually manage to kill someone. Pepper and Crowley and the squad have to try to make sure that doesn’t happen. A slightly odd but reasonably OK episode.

Silence
has what seems to be a simple plot but it gets complicated. A mute girl named Glenna is worried about the disappearance of her sister Beth. She thinks Beth’s husband Julian may have murdered her. Pepper gets involved in the case because she knows sign language. The key evidence might possibly be found at Julian’s cabin on Frost Lake. Pepper stumbles across a clue that suggests that what is really going on maybe be something quite different. A good performance by the underrated Joanna Pettet as Glenna. Quite a good story, with the audience initially having no more idea than Pepper about where the truth lies.

A gang rumble leads to the shooting of a cop in Incident Near a Black & White. This one is a bit contrived and predictable and is mostly notable for featuring a dangerously incompetent senior police officer, and for the suggestion (unusual for 1975) that the police sometimes behave badly. We also get to see Crowley and Pepper in uniform dealing with routine incidents (there’s even an Adam-12 reference).

The Melting Point of Ice starts with a diamond robbery in which everything goes wrong. A jeweller is killed, one of the robbers is shot and then when they stash the uncut stones they get ripped off by a couple of amateurs. Pepper goes undercover selling coffee and burgers from the back of a truck - you won’t be surprised to learn that she sells a lot of coffee and burgers. The cops have to find those hapless amateurs before the professionals do. It’s nothing special but it’s a solid episode.

Pepper goes into business in The Pawn Shop. A well-organised burglary gang has been ripping off the rich folks of Lambert Hills. Crowley has the bright idea of setting up a pawn shop which will appear to be a front for a fencing operation. It’s not a bad story but the presence of Joan Collins as the guest star makes it a must-see. She plays a movie star who takes a shine to Crowley.

In Angela Crowley’s squad makes a big heroin bust but the cop, Larry, taking the evidence to the preliminary hearing manages to lose the evidence. The question is whether he lost it deliberately. No-one wants to think Larry is corrupt but the signs seem to point that way. Especially when it’s discovered he’s been dating a mobster’s daughter. An OK story, and darker and more hard-hitting than the average Police Woman episode.

Wednesday's Child is a pretty routine episode. A cat burglar is facing a long stretch in prison if he doesn’t coöperate. The big problem for the cops is two witnesses who have to kept alive. It’s all just too predictable.

In Generation of Evil clean-cut college kid Steve Glass (played by Barry Williams, yes Greg Brady from The Brady Bunch) is kidnapped. The reason he’s been kidnapped is that he’s the grandson of gangster Morrie Hirsch. The kidnappers want two million dollars. Hirsch won’t co-operate with the police but they have a lead, which leads to Pepper going undercover as a Vegas showgirl so she can get close to sleazy casino operator Lou Malik (played with style by Robert Vaughn).

The most interesting thing about this episode is Morrie Hirsch. He was once a real big shot but now he’s a tired old man and he’s ailing and the only thing he cares about is his grandson. Now he discovers that he has no friends and nobody wants to help him out and he can’t get his hands on the two million and his world is falling down about his ears. He might have been a feared gangster once but now he’s an oddly sympathetic character, too stubborn to ask the police for help but increasingly desperate. So despite a routine plot this is quite a good character-driven episode.

Double Image starts with a blackmail racket, a variant of the old badger game, but it leads to murder. One of the participants in the blackmail scam offers to assist the police and Pete Royster is assigned to protect her. Unfortunately Pete gets much too emotionally involved. This really becomes the main focus of this episode (and it’s a very good episode).

In Mother Love a baby is kidnapped. The identity of the kidnapper comes as a surprise and the bad news is that she’s crazy and she’s prepared to kill to keep that baby. And she does kill. A reasonably entertaining episode with a nice double-cross twist.

Task Force: Cop Killer is a two-parter and it suffers from many of the typical problems of two-part episodes. It takes forever for the actual story to get going. Pepper is persuaded to apply for a paramilitary-style police motorcycle task force. I have no idea why a detective sergeant would want to do something like that. The last thing a detective would want to do is to go back in uniform and go back to issuing traffic citations. Pepper falls for a hot shot motorcycle cop named Matteo. While Matteo is romancing Pepper they’re being watched by a peeping tom, and Matteo know who the peeping tom is.

The motorcycle task force has a few run-ins with a biker gang. There’s a suspicion that a state senator’s daughter who ran away from home a few years earlier is riding with the gang. Finally, after an hour of pointless riding around on motorcycles the plot starts to kick in when a cop gets run over by a van.

The second part is a marginal improvement. There’s an obvious suspect, and there’s a dead girl’s body found in a ravine. Naturally Pepper manages to get herself kidnapped yet again. As a one-hour episode this one might have worked but there’s not enough plot for two hours and the motorcycle task force stuff is a bit creepy. A disappointing end to an otherwise pretty decent season.

Final Thoughts

Police Woman holds up pretty well and it has Angie Dickinson’s star power. Highly recommended.